RC Symondson is well known in club circles as the steady driver of a Type 57 Bugatti which in club races can usually be relied on to lead home modern, larger sports cars. He is something of a connoisseur of good handling in a motor car, and witness his article on steering in Motor Sport during the war. In the article below he describes the interesting vehicles he has owned, starting with the inevitable old motor-cycle and culminaiting in his present, truly admirable 3.3 Bugatti.—Ed.
The first motor vehicle I owned was a 23/4-hp Douglas motorcycle with plain 2-speed gear and belt drive. I had a notion that the power could be increased by getting more air and more fuel into the cylinders and so fitted an enormous jet and an extra inlet to keep the mixture, as I thought, right. This first essay in tuning was not, of course, outstandingly successful.
This occurred whilst I was fourteen, when it was legal to hold a motor-cycle licence at that age. The Douglas was followed by a 7/9-hp Harley-Davidson with which I competed unsuccessfully in two sprint events. The Harley-Davidson was soon swopped for an 8-hp Zenith, which went quite well, but was so long and whippy that it was a matter of great difficulty to keep both wheels pointing in the right direction. I did, however, have one or two hill-limb successes with this ungainly machine, which was in turn followed by an 8/45-hp Brough Superior with JAP engine. This was a very fast and controllable motor-cycle and achieved, after tuning, a timed speed of 112 mph. If our timing was not up to Ebblewhite-standards, this machine was nevertheless extremely fast for its day. About this time three of us acquired a very second-hand model T Ford with a box body for transporting our motor-cycles to speed events. This vehicle had the peculiarity that if the steering wheel was turned far enough in either direction the front wheels began to straighten up again. I found this disconcerting and nearly all the driving was left to the one member of our trio who appeared to like it !
Prior to this I had acquired my first car—a Brescia Bugatti Modifie. This was a 1924 car, which I obtained in 1925. It was, of course fast for its day and the literally screaming acceleration on the gears was the purest bliss. It handled astonishingly well and this quality kept me out of all sorts of trouble. The tyre consumption was, however, a serious matter. I not infrequently pulled the beaded edge covers off the rims when cornering. A friend maintains to this day that on one particular occasion I pulled off all four tyres on one corner; I am confident, however, that this is an exaggeration ! This car taught me a great deal about gear changing and maintaining control during slides. The braking, however, was another matter. On dry roads the hand-brake produced a lovely hissing noise and some slight retardation and the foot-brake, which worked on the transmission, produced nothing at all. On wet roads, the hand-brake ceased to have any effect, aural or otherwise, whereas the foot-brake locked the back wheels the instant the pedal was touched. Thus, the satisfactory way to reduce speed on wet roads is to turn the car sideways. After a year or so the power was falling off and second gear was getting terribly noisy. I lifted the cylinder block to discover some horribly cracked valve seats and two exhaust valves of astonishing shape. I hurriedly put in two new exhaust valves, buttoned everything back into place, and took the car to Great Portland Street whilst it was still running on four cylinders. I here exchanged it for a small and rakish French sports car called a Rally, which had four-wheel-brakes. This little car looked exceedingly fast but, in fact, needed good conditions to exceed 65 mph. At the end of my first week of ownership the crankshaft broke, so the dealer came rather better out of the affair than I did. The engine was mended and presently, to some extent, tuned. It had a push-rod ohv engine of about 1,250 cc, which was, I believe, a Ruby with Rally cast on the valve cover. It later achieved 60 mph in second gear, which represented the phenomenal rpm of about 4,800, but it never did more than 73 mph in top. This car overlapped one or two subsequent machines and was driven all over the country in the course of business. In towards the end I lost the starting handle and the battery had long since ceased to take any interest in turning the .engine. The starting technique then was to push the car, running alongside, snick it into second gear, snick it out again as soon as it fired and at the same time jump on to one of the external brake cables which was conveniently placed for this manoeuvre. This car had extremely staggered seats making it almost an tandem— no windscreen and of course no hood. The acqoisition of an new girlfriend caused the fitting of a windscreen, but I always thought this rather sybaritic.
Somewhere about this time I happened to buy a 1911 5/6 hp single-gear chain-drive Indian motor-cycle. This machine steered phenomenally well at low speeds but whenever one began to get cracking it would throw one or both of the inlet push-rods. Starting was, of course, a matter of pushing and this vehicle lives in my memory chiefly for an almost successful attempt to get away from me up Jesus Lane, Cambridge. It was obstinate about starting and having reached the limit of speed obtainable by man-power, it suddenly fired on both cylinders. With my legs a mere blur, I finally got my chest on to the carrier and struggled aboard . . . .
In 1926 I bought a most interesting car, which I wish I had preserved, although I did in fact have it for some eight years. It was a Peugeot with a 3.8-litre (95 mm by 135 mm), four-cylinder Knight sleeve-valve engine, and had been built with two or three others for the 1924 Le Mans 24-hour Race. This car had been bought by an acquaintance in Paris, from whom I bought it. This was a very fine machine for its day and I generally reckoned to beat up Bentleys on the road, though its maximum speed was certainly not higher and the low speed acceleration certainly worse. It did, however, handle very well for a biggish car and had a wonderfully sweet cruising speed, which could be as high as 85 mph. Its maximum was 90 mph on the level, up hill or down. These cars are referred to in W Boddy’s book “Continental Sports Cars” as having steel sleeves and indeed the Autocar also reported steel sleeves for engines of the same design built for the Targa 1925. I am fairly sure this is a mistake for it will be remembered that when Daimlers took to steel sleeves they had to be white-metalled and that this was unsatisfactory for hard driving. In fact, my engine had the same cylinder bore as the current 23/65 Peugeot, but thinner cast-iron sleeves, thus using larger pistons. These engines were of almost identical design though not of the same dimensions as the contemporary Panhards, these two makes sharing the same designer, whose name I now forget. There was a most satisfactory device which provided additional oil to the sleeves under pressure when the throttle was opened beyond a certain point. This permitted flat-out driving without causing excessive oil consumption at lower speed. When I first took the car over this device had been tampered with so that the extra oil was delivered the whole time, causing a dense smoke-screen. It is amazing to think that one of these four-cylinder sleeve-valve engines, peaking at 3,800 rpm, should be driven into second and third places in the Targa Florio, when there was fierce competition from Bugatti and the other famous Grand Prix cars, My car was, incidentally, doing 1,960 rpm at 60 mph. I ultimately sold this car to an acquaintance who took it to the Continent, where it featured in an International incident during the then critical Saar plebiscite. I failed, however, to receive any money for the car so I presently got it back again, only to find it had a damaged back-axle. This was repaired and the car then went to a good friend, who did not, however, keep it long and I heard tell that it met its end when being started up on the handle at full throttle, the engine breaking into countless pieces.
About this time I had a short stay in Kenya, where I acquired an Overland Whippet. This had a side-valve, four-cylinder engine and most peculiar 1/4-elliptic springs, set at about 45 degs to the centre line of the car. It was exceedingly uncomfortable and slow, but sturdy and reliable on rough going. On returning to England I had as a hack machine a bull-nose Morris-Oxford, which fully lived up to the reputation for “taking it” which these cars acquired. On one occasion it had to tow the Peugeot a distance of some 70 miles. The tow rope was attached firmly enough to one of the back spring anchorages and the effort of towing pulled the chassis of the poor Morris into a noticeably “lozenge” shape, which it retained for the rest of its days. This, however, had no apparent effect whatever on the car’s well being.
The Morris was presently traded-in for another interesting machine—an Arrol-Aster—a very sleek saloon for its day, with a 2-litre single sleeve-valve engine. I remember being surprised by the handsome offer which the agent made for the Morris. I discovered the reason a week later when I learnt that the Arrol-Aster Company had gone into liquidation. Nevertheless, this narrowly missed being a good car and was a pleasant one while it was going. The first onset of serious trouble was after about 7,000 miles, when the compression became very weak. I attempted to remove the junk heads, but found these would not come out. I rang op the maker’s Service Depot and I was told that the only method of removal in such an eventuality was to force them out, even if it meant breaking them, because the junk rings had worn such deep grooves in the sleeves that the junk heads were trapped. Junk rings of different design were, therefore, substituted but were never very satisfactory, owing to oil starvation at the top of the sleeves. I wanted to use the Peugeot device to deliver extra oil but there was no satisfactory means of delivering it to the right place. The sleeves of this car were driven by the ingenious “wobble-shaft” which was, in effect, a small crankshaft with the throws set at an angle in such a way that the top end of the rod connecting the wobble-shaft crank-pin to the sleeve driving-pin described a roughly circular path. These cars were, it may be remembered, raced to some extent by their sponsors, but it was vitally necessary to avoid over-revving the wobble-shaft. My car eventually finished its life in a breaker’s yard owing to the failure of a connecting-rod at 30 mph, the failure being so spectacular that on coming to rest and raising the bonnet, I was able to see the road through the engine.
The demise of the Rally coincided with the acquisition of one of the early Wolseley Hornets, which was a very lively small car for its day. It got driven so hard that after 24,000 miles it was quite worn out all over and was replaced by an early MG Magna, an exeeedingly neat little car, which gave the impression of going fast and handling well. In fact, it had a considerably optimistic speedometer and a very early breakaway point, both of which added to the impression of performance. Having no water pump the engine did not appreciate tuning and the fitting of KE 965 exhaust valves, a higher compression ratio and some very “hard” KLG plugs brought it up to about its limit. The front-end of this car used to weave about horribly if it carried much of a load, ie one heavy passenger or two light ones. It was also prone to dynamo trouble, as the dynamo drove the camshaft this was tiresome. Whilst no doubt it fulfilled its manufacturer’s intentions very well, it was, to me, altogether a little spurious and has left me permanently allergic to MGs, this impression being fortified by one of the early 2-litre saloons, which I did not own.
When the Arrol-Aster departed I needed something else with a roof over it and bought a very second-hand Rover Ten in Great Portland Street. It enjoyed the fate of being an utter hack and its thirst for oil was gratified by pouring in cheap Gamage’s oil daily. Astonishingly enough I once did a skid through approximately 225 degs on wet tram lines in the dark and was able to proceed on my way without the wheels coming to rest. It is hard to say whether I, who knew what was going on, or my passengers, who were more or less asleep, were the more frightened ! This car and the Magna were presently traded-in for an Alvis Firefly, which I bought principally on good reports of it in the Motoring Press, but it turned out to be the most disappointing car I have ever had. I owned it for only nine months, during which time it was serviced by the Alvis Service Station. It suffered from numerous troubles, including stretched exhaust valves several times, loose rivets in the chassis, several attacks of wheel wobble, and so on. This car also passed out with a bang when travelling at 63 mph, which was the maker’s recommended maximum cruising speed. Hastily declutching and bringing it to rest I got out to see a streak of oil stretching for 100 yds up the road behind the car. The makers claimed it must have been consistently over-revved, with which I could not agree, but that they would, under the guarantee, provide me with a new piston free of charge as they considered it was a broken piston which had allowed the connecting-rod to come out, smashing the block, crankcase, sump, etc, and putting the crankshaft out of true. I daresay I was exceptionally unlucky but when the Alvis was mended I sold it in a huff at a painful loss and bought an old long-chassis Lancia Lambda with Weymann saloon body, which had started life as a colonial model in Australia and had most enormous wheels and tyres. This proved a wonderful car and was followed by a short chassis 8th Series Lambda with an open four-seater body. This car was quite outstandingly good and was the first in which I achieved 60 miles in one hour on the road—naturally under favourable conditions. Its maximum was not much more than 80 mph but it was such a safe and controllable car that one never felt the least put out by circumstances, the car always helped one out of trouble. I have seen this car competing at VSCC meetings since the war and hope it is still going strong. The then-owner said the chassia seemed to weave on corners, which it certainly did not in my day and I can only suppose this to be the result of old age.
Fug-box motoring was provided at this time by a Rover Pilot, a small 12-hp, six-cylinder car with cast-iron pistons. It was second-hand, in quite immaculate condition, and was an excellently-made machine. It was incredibly slow and the roadholding was literally dangerous at 50 mph with a full load. Once when returning from Scotland with four up and luggage at night the directional stability became so queer that I was satisfied that I had a puncture in a back tyre. On getting out to inspect, however. I found all the tyres were in order and so I proceeded, with matters going from bad to worse, until I reached the outskirts of Newark, where I made a further inspection under a street lamp. This revealed the fact that there were only about four spokes intact in one of the rear bolt-on wire wheels and a dozen or more spokes broken in the other one. This was really only the result of overloading and overdriving and the car’s reputation was blameless until it was part-exchanged for a Ford V8 convertible coupe. The saleaman genuinely apologised for not being able to give me a higher price for the Rover, as it was in such a beautiful condition. Shortly before this I returned to the House of Bugatti, buying in 1936 a 1934 Type 57 with a very pretty open two-seater body, which had formerly belonged to TASO Mathieson. I was never really happy with the brakes and the suspension was rather hard for a comparatively quiet and flexible car. It was, however, deceptively fast, for example, some comparative tests at Brooklands with an SS100, which I felt to be a much faster car, showed that the Bugatti would walk away from it quite easily at any speed, excepting on get-away. This Bugatti gave me a year of very pleasurable motoring until it was turned in, in favour of the 57S Bugatti which I still have. This was, I am told, the first 57S to come into the country and was delivered to Embiricos, who ran it in the 1936 TT and had the misfortune to crash it. The car was rebuilt only fairly well and was for sale at a rather high price in a Bayswater Mews, with a rough two-seater road-racing body. I was not, on first acquaintance, particularly keen on it but discovered it many months later still for sale in an Albemarle Street showroom. The price by now had come down quite a bit and I was able to do a satisfactory deal, thereupon taking the car to the Corsica people, where the present body was built. From 1938 to the beginning of the war this car gave me great pleasure, far more performauce than I had hitherto known, as well as the odd “place” at Prescott Hill Climbs, It was laid up throughout the war, with great care, by Thompson & Taylor. Having been put away with Castrol-R in the engine, I decided that a complete strip-down was a wise precaution and this was eventually extended to the axles, gearbox, etc. On re-building it was found necessary to experiment patiently to correct the king-pin angles, spring-camber and De Ram shock-absorbers. these components having been ignorantly or carelessly re-built after the TT crash. At the end of this, the car went a good deal faster and had, incidentally, been lightened by over 2 cwt without in any way interfering with the comfort or the chassis structure (and has since been lightened somewhat further on the same lines). The roadholding and general handling characteristics were, and still are, in my experience, beyond compare. Since the war the car has given me enormous pleasure on the road and some wins and “places” at Silverstone and elsewhere. In sprints it is handicapped by a heavy crankshaft with disc-webs, and a slow gear-change. owing to a two-plate clutch with heavy spinning members. The car’s most surprising characteristic is its flexibility. It will run at 10 mph in top gear (approximately 450 rpm) and accelerate away from this speed as fast and as smoothly as, shall we say, a Cadillac. In reply to “What will she do, Mister ?” I don’t know, but I have on occasion seen 5,500 rpm on the 4.17 to 1 top gear with 600-19 rear tyres (600-18 rear tyres are standard equipment). Petrol consumption on the road and enjoying myself is 16 to 17 mpg. If restraint is used, 20 mpg is quite easily obtainable and this still allows for a cruising speed of 70-75 mph. When racing the consumption is approximately 8 mpg. There was one painful blow about two years ago when a cracked engine-bearer was discovered. This was evidently cracked in the TT, and mended by a so-called low temperature welding process, which was unsuitable for taking the strain. The engine forms the most important cross-member in the chassis, being most rigidly mounted. Many months went by before the engine was rebuilt with a new crankcase. It has become sadly difficult to maintain a car such as this in the event of any major trouble. Nevertheless, it is an extraordinarily satisfying possession, which I intend to keep for the rest of my life, as I do not anticipate that such finish or craftsmanship will go into the making of any future cars.
Since 1938 closed-car motoring has been provided by two Ford V8s in addition to the one already mentioned, one of these having been swopped without cash adjustment for a Baby Fiat. The “Baby” suffered an inadvertent half-roll when, following another car quite slowly, I failed to pay attention to the road outside Robin Jackson’s establishment at Brooklands. I hit one of the white posts and found myself upside down spinning round on the roof, which miraculously did not collapse, in spite of being constructed of light steel battens and canvas. I also owned, just before the war whilst I was in Java for a short time, an Essex Terraplane, or perhaps I might say “Terrorplane.” It was second-hand and merits no further comment. During most of the war, when the exigencies of the Service permitted, and for a while after, I ran a Buick two-seater drophead. It showed marked understeer on the straight and bad oversteer when cornered fast. On icy roads one’s elbows nearly seized up trying to keep pace on the very low-geared steering mechanism with the swinging of the tail. None the less it went like a dynamo and during 45,000 miles merely required two new sets of plugs and one fanbelt. It was then done up and sold at a profit of some 450 per cent. It was followed by a Talbot “75” which I bought very crashed and rebuilt myself, having a good deal of time on my hands just then. Much was done to remove invisible elastic from the steering mechanism and this old car gave good service. I also reverted to motor-cycling on an old Rudge “Ulster.” Shortly after buying this I was beginning to fancy myself once more as a rider when I got into a spectacular slide on a bend. The bicycle then wobbled with such violence as to fling itself into a ditch and me through a thorn bush. This, though painful, was not incapacitating and I walked to a nearby farm-house to telephone for transport. On seeing me the unfortunate farmer’s wife flung her hands in the air at my appearance. On recovering, she invited me to look in a mirror, when I was surprised to see that my face was a mass of blood from the thorn-bush scratches. I presently mended the motor-cycle, paying rather careful attention to worn wheel and steering-head bearings, and had a lot of fun with it on short journeys. With the compression-plate removed and some decent fuel, the acceleration was exceedingly good and the maximum about 90 mph. It never, however, steered very well.
The next car was an Allard. I bought this in the form of a short-chassis and had my own two-seater fixed-head coupe built on it. Delays were such that I gave up the idea of a model or a mock-up and must consider myself lucky that it turned out to be quite good-looking and thoroughly practical. The engine was a 30-hp Ford but fitted with pre-war aluminium heads (which curiously enough were not identical in combustion chamber shape) a pre-war inlet manifold and Allard’s “competition” exhaust manifolds. This car gave a good deal better performance than one had any right to expect. It was no exception to beat up an open two-seater Allard with Mercury engine and aluminium heads of a later date. I disliked the way the steering kicked as the car was originally supplied and took the liberty of adding a cross-member near the front and a pair of Hartford shock-absorbers depending from this. (The Allard front-end has, of course, been re-designed since then.) This greatly improved matters from my point of view and the car gave good service until replaced last summer by a pre-war 327/80 BMW. This car was owned by a friend and has always been known to me. It is a most charming car, with delightful steering. The engine is rather fussy at low speeds but particularly smooth and quiet at cruising speeds as high as 80/85 mph. Comparing it with its foster-child the Bristol, it has slightly less refinement. It has, however, a major advantage over the Bristol–its self-adjusting brakes. It has, on account of its age, not been trouble-free but I think it a great pity that an identical car is not made today.
A Douglas Vespa completes the present score. This neat little affair, with a large basket and a very protective windscreen, is excellent for local “popping about” and will carry an astonishing assortment of things, including, sometimes, my labrador. The tiny wheels, however, do not assist adhesion and in a spell of snow and ice it threw me and bit my leg. The Vespa, I mean.
Looking at what has been written above I see that eight cars were Continental in origin, six American and nine English. Of the English cars at least three were perfectly soulless hacks, whereas the high-lights have all come from the Continent. Possibly this is because handling qualities are, to me, more important than anything else. I wonder what new cars available to (a few) English motorists today handle really well ? Frazer-Nash, Bristol (both of Continental parentage), Aston-Martin. Citroen (Continental origin again), Morris Minor. Heaven forfend that I should lay myself open to libel action, but are there any more ?